Remembering Rwanda: can we ever say 'never again'?

Posted on Thursday 10th April 2014
danielle-beswick

This week marked the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. More than 800,000 Rwandans, mostly from the minority ethnic Tutsi group, were killed by their Hutu neighbours while the UN force in the country and Western powers looked on. The genocide was ended militarily only after three months, by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a primarily Tutsi rebel group led by Rwanda’s current President Paul Kagame.  

As Ban Ki Moon reflected in an article on 6 April, the genocide left an indelible mark on Rwanda and on the conscience of the international community. It shapes Rwanda’s domestic and foreign policies, including treatment of political opponents, relationships with aid donors and policy towards neighbouring DR Congo. It also underpins international responses to state violence against citizens, which have relied heavily on ‘African solutions’ in Africa. Much of this legacy is praiseworthy, including Rwanda’s development and domestic security achievements. There is little doubt that the lives of Rwandans have improved significantly since the low baseline of 1994 and the country performs well in development terms. At the international level, new mechanisms have been put in place to provide rapid response to crises like that in 1994. Nevertheless, in both arenas significant challenges remain for those who aim to protect citizens from state violence and more will need to be done if we are to back the rhetoric of ‘never again’ with the tools and resources needed to make it a reality.  

Domestically, Rwandan politics is dominated by the RPF. Building on legitimacy that stemmed from ending the genocide, it has taken advantage of a tightly controlled political space to exercise this dominance. To many critics, Rwanda has effectively become a one-party state. The government argues that control on political activity and freedom of expression is necessary to prevent ethnic division, but two decades on this has become less convincing to the aid donors on which Rwanda relies for around half of its annual budget. Intolerance of opposition at home has seen a rise of opposition in exile. Some of this is radicalised and militarised, alleging Rwanda has fallen to a Tutsi dictatorship, while other more measured opponents have emerged, including from Kagame’s former inner circle. This included two prominent figures in exile in South Africa, one of whom was killed earlier this year and the other targeted for a second time in attacks blamed by South African security forces on Rwandan officials. Attacks on Rwandan opposition figures in exile have previously generated little international attention, but Kagame's response – expressing innocence of the attacks but also regret that he had not been responsible – has begun to animate and provoke response from donors.  

On security, Rwanda has enjoyed relative peace and stability in the domestic sphere under the RPF. The regional legacy of the genocide is more mixed. Rwandan armed forces have intervened repeatedly in DR Congo to force Hutu refugees from 1994 to return home and to tackle anti-Tutsi militia, which, though depleted, remain to this day. As well as direct interventions, Rwanda's support for Congolese rebel groups has made it a lynchpin in regional (in)security, but recent events suggest donors are no longer willing to overlook Rwanda's role in the destabilisation of its neighbour. In 2012 many of Rwanda‘s main donor partners cut or suspended aid in response to allegations by a UN Group of Experts that Kigali was aiding the M23 rebel group. The aid cuts seemed to work, with the M23 later defeated by a new UN intervention brigade comprising South African and Tanzanian forces. Interestingly, this new force represents one of the genocide's positive legacies – consisting of African troops with a robust and assertive mandate, able to actively pursue and disarm militias, in sharp contrast to the weak mandates of UN forces who became bystanders to genocide in 1994.  

A further positive legacy of 1994 lies in growing African contributions to peacekeeping. Despite its small size, Rwanda is now the sixth-largest contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping missions. It has contributed significantly to peacekeeping in Darfur, Sudan, and most recently in Central African Republic (CAR), earning praise for the effectiveness and professionalism of its forces.  

It is however also in CAR that the limits of Rwanda’s legacy in making ‘never again’ a reality are most apparent. Following long-term instability and a coup in 2013, state control disintegrated; there is little security and Muslims face ethnic cleansing while the world watches. About 2,000 French and 6,000 African troops are attempting to provide security, but a larger UN force is needed for effective civilian protection. This force is scheduled to arrive in Autumn 2014, a gap of more than the 100 days it took for the Rwandan genocide to be completed.  

The circumstances in Rwanda and CAR are of course different, but as world leaders express their shame at allowing the 1994 genocide to happen, more than words are needed to develop effective systems and forces to prevent atrocities against civilians. ‘Never again’ cannot be achieved using a legacy; it requires material and political investment. Rwanda’s commitment to peacekeeping shows it is willing to play a part in this based on its skills, experience and means. A fitting tribute to the victims of 1994 requires other world leaders to now do the same.  

Dr Danielle Beswick is Director of Research, International Development Department, College of Social Sciences